What The Violence In Bengaluru Says About Mobs And Governments In India

Instruments of the state.

15/09/2016 5:17 PM IST | Updated 15/09/2016 5:35 PM IST
Abhishek Chinnappa / Reuters
Men ride a motorcycle past a lorry in Bengaluru, which was set on fire by protesters, India September 12, 2016.

With the mayhem and arson that destructed both public and private properties worth hundreds of crores of rupees in Bengaluru and elsewhere abating, the Karnataka government is hard-pressed to retain is investor-friendliness. Two of its ministers have said that 'Brand Bengaluru' is intact and that one single incident won't deter investors and people.

After the deplorable sights of free-roaming mobs, including college students, torching dozens of buses and indulging in vandalism that played out on live and prime-time TV for a few days, the Karnataka government is obviously desperate.

What people across the world saw was not an investment magnet, or India's 'Silicon Valley', but a lawless city that could be taken over by goons at the drop of a hat. It was almost as if the state was on the verge of a civil war. No other tech city in the world would have brooked such anarchy. Trade body Assocham reportedly estimated a loss of Rs 25,000 crore, which is a lot of money in an overcrowded and underdeveloped country that aspires big.

It's pointless to blame the rioters and vandals, because universally they are faceless groups that revel in violence, often under political or communal/ethnic patronage, with clear unmissable triggers from certain quarters.

However hard Chief minister Siddaramaiah and ministers Priyank M Kharge and RV Deshpande try to sweep the debris of the street violence under the carpet, it won't stick, although companies might not move out immediately because their options for tech-business ecosystems in India are limited. Through repeated, predictable episodes, Bangalore has proved itself to be prone to street violence whenever it's asked to share Cauvery water with Tamil Nadu during drought seasons. Unless violence is erased from the Cauvery matrix, it will recur again or even get worse because the river is not going to get healthier.

It's pointless to blame the rioters and vandals, because universally they are faceless groups that revel in violence, often under political or communal/ethnic patronage, with clear unmissable triggers from certain quarters. French sociologist Gustave Le Bon, one of the earliest to study mob psychology, had postulated in as early as 1895 that a rioter "is no longer himself, but has become an automation who has ceased to be guided by his will.... In the crowd he is barbarian. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings".

Abhishek Chinnappa / Reuters
Members of the security forces make their way past burning lorries in Bengaluru, India September 12, 2016.

Whether it's a genocide or local arson, this collective barbarism is not a without a trigger. In the case of Cauvery, the political triggers were visible to everyone in 1991 itself. The Karnataka government failed in both defusing the trigger and avoiding its aftermath. In fact, it probably though that a controlled mob-fury would change the Supreme Court's mind.

Those who blame Narendra Modi for the Gujarat riots in 2002, or the Congress in 1984, or the ethnic and political groups for all those civil wars across the world shouldn't forget that it's some kind of benign official indifference that allows for the trigger. But what follows never remains controlled and will soon engulf everything in its way. The only way for it to die down, is by the natural loss of its momentum. Even an epidemic such as Ebola will taper off because at some stage it starts losing its momentum.

The Cauvery memories of 1991, when violence lasted a month and thousands of Tamil families had to flee Bengaluru, and the subsequent flare-up in 2002, should have kept the Siddaramaiah government on high alert. Instead, as hooligans poured into the streets, his police stood down.

Abhishek Chinnappa / Reuters
Police raises his baton at a man who defied a curfew in Bengaluru, following violent protests, India September 13, 2016.

What could have been put down in a day took a few days. The same sectarian leaders who were active in 1991 were seen flaming passions yet again. Didn't the state intelligence advise preventive detention of those known trouble-makers? The sad fact is that the passion about Cauvery is not something Siddaramaiah could have politically compromised with and hence he allowed for some violence.

Politically patronised mob violence is not restricted to Bengaluru, Mandya or Karnataka. It's a way of life for the whole of India and very often, it's nothing less than a minor civil war. Five years ago, politicians with vested interests in Kerala stoked fears of a breach in a dam (Mullapperiyar), that supplies water to drought-prone districts of southern Tamil Nadu.

The fear-psychosis was amplified by the local media to such a level that many thought that about 30 lakh people would be washed away any time. It led to inter-state violence when chauvinist politicians in Tamil Nadu responded with equal ferocity. Fortunately, there were sane voices within the state, including that of a former SC judge, and the then ruling UDF didn't overtly support the fear-mongering.

Abhishek Chinnappa / Reuters
A municipal worker sweeps around the charred remains of a lorry set ablaze during the violent protests in Bengaluru, India, September 14, 2016.

The fear died down when the dam didn't breach. The situation could have gone out of control had the Tamil Nadu and Kerala governments chose to fight proxy wars using the lawless mobs. When they kept away, the mobs lost momentum. Today, nobody speaks about Mullapperiyar and the present chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan speaks a language of not politics, but science.

Karnataka should have cracked down on the mobs, detained their leaders beforehand and should have risked political displeasure. Water is a national resource and when two states cannot agree on sharing this resource, they should leave it to the appropriate tribunals and the Supreme Court. That's what civilised democracies will do. If you cannot solve things bilaterally, ask a trustworthy third-party. The tribunal and the SC are the only possible third-parties because the union government (although Narasimha Rao was successful once) is often accused of partisanship.

It's high-time the regional satraps learned that autonomy is no license to sponsor violence for parochial wins or prove political points.

Politics of chauvinism and the local satraps who gain power from mobs are a problem for India. In Mumbai, which claims itself to be cosmopolitan, the MNS and the Shiv Sena are law unto themselves. The situation is similar in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh or anywhere else, where local political chieftains with goons on command control social life.

Although India's strength comes from its federalism and the autonomy of states, free-roaming mobs controlled by politicians and local gang-leaders threaten the very idea of a nation. As the Bangalore arson showed, people, public and private properties, and businesses are extremely vulnerable to destruction. For instance, some time back, many businesses in Hyderabad either shifted or created a second base in Bangalore when the Telangana struggle raged.

It's high-time the regional satraps learned that autonomy is no license to sponsor violence for parochial wins or prove political points. As Le Bon noted, during the periods of social decline and disintegration, society is threatened by the rule of crowds. Are we under social decline and disintegration? It's time the Supreme Court held state governments accountable for mob violence. Dismiss them if they cannot be responsible.

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